No fire zone: Commonwealth rehabilitating Sri Lankan regime
Spin the clock forward. It’s 2018. You’re four-and-a-half years older and you’ve just woken up to the headlines: more than 50 world leaders are heading to the Syrian capital, Damascus, for a global summit, hosted by President Bashar al-Assad. Syria’s at peace, it’s economy, thriving. The tourists are back and the “terrorists”, vanquished. Mr Assad is basking in golden glow of total victory. And the terrible war crimes of which he was once accused? Swept under the carpet, in the spirit of looking forward, not back. Triumphant, magnanimous, his charming wife at his side, the dictator-turned-statesman grasps the hand of the British Prime Minister, and shakes it firmly, live on TV. A huge grin splits Assad’s face. He’s back in the fold – and he knows it.
Sound far-fetched? Far from it. It’s happening this month. OK, not in Syria and not with Assad, but in Sri Lanka, a country whose president stands accused of the worst war crimes committed this century. And that’s saying something, given what’s going on in Syria. Welcome to CHOGM 2013, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo: a prestigious international summit, graced by more than 50 presidents and prime ministers… and our very own Prince of Wales.
The meeting will be staged on a palm-fringed, sun-drenched tropical island, whose blood-drenched recent backstory will shock the world. I’ve been reporting about Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields for the past four-and-a-half years and those who know the dark and dirty secrets of what happened there are incredulous at what’s about to take place. This is a regime that is getting away with murder and the Commonwealth is complicit in its rehabilitation.
On 15 November, Prince Charles – representing the Queen as the head of the Commonwealth – and David Cameron will shake hands with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. According to the United Nations, forces under his command oversaw the indiscriminate killing of between 40,000 and 70,000 ethnic Tamil civilians during the final few months of the 28-year-long conflict.
Make no mistake: the Tamil Tiger separatists were banned by Britain as a terrorist organisation and were themselves responsible for many terrible atrocities against civilians during the war. But the government’s all-out campaign to defeat the Tigers set a new benchmark in wanton brutality. Bizarrely, President Rajapaksa rose to prominence as a human rights lawyer. He now heads an unrepentant, pariah regime. He has steadfastly rejected demands for an independent international inquiry into alleged war crimes – including from our own Prime Minister.
A gruesome selection of those alleged crimes was caught on camera. This footage of slaughter, most filmed on mobile phones by both victims and perpetrators, depicts a vision of hell on earth in what the Sri Lankan government, with no apparent hint of irony, called the “no fire zone.” It was a God-forsaken stretch of beach onto which they herded more than 100,000 Tamil civilians and the rump of the rebel army. Before killing them in a storm of shellfire.
During the endgame of the conflict, the government barred independent journalists from the no fire zone. But it was not a war without witnesses because those pesky little mobile phones were everywhere, in the hands of soldiers and civilians. The metadata buried deep within each video provides definitive digital proof that what you’re watching is not hammed-up in a Hollywood basement – as the Sri Lankan regime have you believe.
Tonight, Channel 4 broadcasts No Fire Zone, the eponymous documentary, directed by Callum Macrae, the culmination of a three-year-long investigation which began with Channel 4 News reports and included two documentaries in the Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields series – described by the UN as “particularly powerful” in bringing the evidence of war crimes in Sri Lanka to the attention of the international community.
No Fire Zone relates the chilling story of the last 138 days of this war, which culminated on that beach in north eastern Sri Lanka in early 2009. The mobile phone footage has been verified and authenticated and woven together with testimony from eye-witnesses. Be warned: this film is as traumatic as it is compelling.
Now the regime accused of the commission of these crimes is to be rewarded with a place on the world stage. You really couldn’t make it up. And for the two years that follow this summit, Sri Lanka will lead the 53-member Commonwealth, a body whose core “shared” values are respect for human rights and democracy, as set out in the Commonwealth Charter, signed by the Queen in March this year.
Prince Charles and David Cameron should be shackled to their sofas in Highgrove and No.10 and forced to watch the No Fire Zone documentary before they board their flight to Colombo. As should every other Commonwealth head of government planning to attend. And, frankly, as should every tourist heading to this tropical “paradise” which glories in being crowned British Airways’ top destination 2013.
Sri Lanka thinks it’s out of rehab, spruce and clean. But it’s not.
At Channel 4 News, we have been persistent in our reporting of the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The government has repeatedly challenged our reports, dismissing video evidence we’ve broadcast as “fake.” The grimmest and most controversial of these depicted the summary execution of bound, naked Tamil prisoners, by Sri Lankan soldiers. “Hollywood,” said the government. Independent analysts commissioned by the UN proved them wrong.
Early next year, the international bar association will launch a smart-phone app, called iWitness, which is inspired by our experience in covering Sri Lanka’s war crimes at Channel 4 News. The app will allow the witness to an atrocity to securely upload encrypted video, while protecting their identity. It’s designed around the requirements of the legal process.
According to the UN and all leading international human rights groups, Sri Lanka’s human rights record has has actually got worse since the civil war ended. Today, torture is rife and there are more unresolved disappearances than in any other country bar Iraq.
Canada’s Prime Minister is boycotting CHOGM because of all this but the British government insists that the meeting will shine a spotlight on Sri Lanka.
David Cameron: if you really are going to challenge your host on his human rights record, as you’ve promised to, do watch your back.
A version of this article appears in this week’s Radio Times Point of View column.
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